Where to Find Them
The first step to researching newspapers would probably be simply finding them. In one form or another, printed news has been in existence for nearly two thousand years, so clearly it would be irrational to think that they are all still out there just waiting to be dusted off and read. However, there are still a number of sources for finding a tremendous number of newspapers that can be very valuable to historians, especially those who are conducting research on the last two centuries.
Today, the first step for many people would be to start searching online. Many papers that are in print today have begun to archive not only their current articles, but also many of their papers from years past. Also, many papers that have long been out of print can be found in various databases online. Websites like Newspaper Archive offer an incredible number of newspapers from not just the United States, but also from a handful of countries around the world at the cost of a monthly subscription (free trials are often extended to first time users). Many of these online archives are searchable. This could prove very useful to researchers, because it allows them to quickly search for editorials, articles, or advertisements related to their topic. Newspaper Archive, for example, is fully searchable, easily allowing researchers to narrow their search by places, dates, people, and locations. Luckily, not all of these databases cost researchers' money. A great free resource for researchers working on projects related to North Carolina can be found in the North Carolina Newspaper Digitization Project. This site offers a searchable database on a number of North Carolina papers ranging from the years 1751 to 1898. At any rate, a quick search for "historical newspapers" on any popular search engine, like Google, will return entire lists of valuable digitized newspaper resources.
Unfortunately, a vast number of newspapers are not available online, but can still be found on microfilm. These microfilms are usually free and easy to view, being found in a number of places like public libraries, university libraries, and state archives. The downside to microfilm is that it is rarely indexed, making researching a particular topic time consuming. However, they do allow the reader to flip through the paper in a manner that is usually difficult to do with digital resources. This allows the researcher to get a grasp on other events and people that were important at the time, and in best case scenarios researchers might even be able to find new directions and patterns they had not yet considered for their project. A good example of a microfilmed newspaper for someone who is researching Civil War era North Carolina is the Weekly Raleigh Register, which can be viewed in its entirety from the 1850’s to 1868 in the State Library of North Carolina on the first floor of the North Carolina Archives Building in Raleigh. Reading this paper offers a great glimpse into life in wartime North Carolina, highlighting all kinds of important people and events. In most instances, the machines that allow one to view microfilm also allow one to print a hard copy or sometimes even save the articles they read in various digital formats.
Another thing one must consider when searching for articles in older newspapers, especially in papers from before the twentieth century, is the slow speed at which news traveled. This is especially applicable to those searching through microfilm. When looking for articles on a specific event, no matter how big, one might need to look far past the date of the actual event, sometimes even by several weeks, before they find any mention of it. An example of this can be found in the passing of the Confederate conscription act in the Weekly Raleigh Register. Although the act was signed into law on April 16, 1862 and undoubtedly was one of the biggest events of the Civil War, no mention of the bill’s offcial passage into law can be found in the Register before April 23.
Along the same lines, one must keep in mind the alternative spelling of people and places when they search newspapers both on and offline. For various reasons, including the ignorance of the editor and the lack of press letters, one’s name may be found spelled a number of ways, so first and middle names need to be consulted whenever possible. It seems very likely that many historians have overlooked potentially valuable articles because they failed to recognize possible spelling alternatives, so always be sure to search and consider any form of spelling that may apply.